Jan 07, 2014

    Eusebio - best of his time, and all time

    EUSEBIO, the wonderful football player of the 1960s and 1970s who died on Sunday at 71, was the first African-born star of football and the finest player Portugal fielded in his generation.

    Eusebio would surely be worth a place in any all-time world football team that anyone could name.

    Along with explosive power, extraordinary quickness and an innate ability to sense and exploit the moment, came the unique personality of Eusebio da Silva Ferreira.

    He could cry like a child in moments of defeat; he could lift a team on his own through indomitable spirit; and he would often stand and applaud a goalkeeper who kept out his shots.

    As he got older, and his knees took the kind of pain a boxer endures in the head, he retained that human essence. Meet him at a function, always a football-related function, and you saw shuffling towards you a man with bowed legs and a pained stride, but also that lifelong boyish pleasure in his game.

    Cristiano Ronaldo, his replacement as Portugal's top star, posted a picture of the two of them together on Twitter on Sunday.

    In the photo, Eusebio bears a facial resemblance to Desmond Tutu, the South African human-rights campaigner.

    And there is significance in Eusebio, born in Lourenço Marques, Mozambique, becoming so loved, and now so mourned, in the southern African country's former colonial ruler, Portugal.

    We know that Eusebio's childhood was a struggle after his father, a railroad mechanic, died when the boy and four siblings were of school or pre-school age.

    Kicking around a makeshift ball of old socks or rolled-up paper with bare feet was always Eusebio's escape, and the source of his sense of self-worth.

    By the time Benfica came for him when he was 15, he knew his destiny. Benfica was not the Lisbon team he admired from afar, but it, rather than a rival club, Sporting, made his mother an offer (a pittance worth a few thousand dollars by today's standards).

    From the start, Eusebio lit up Benfica's Estadio da Luz, the Stadium of Light.

    He lit up this reporter's youth, too, when, in 1966, he arrived in England for the World Cup. His contemporaries included Pele and Bobby Charlton, perhaps the finest of Brazilian and English talents. Pele was kicked out of that World Cup, and Charlton was to be a winner. But Eusebio left the greatest imprint.

    In one match, against the North Korean team that had eliminated Italy, Portugal was on the floor, and three goals down inside 24 minutes. Eusebio dragged the team up.

    He scored four times, he was felled for a penalty kick, and if ever one player laid to rest the myth that one man cannot make a team, this was the night.

    The records may show that Eusebio, known as the Black Panther in his prime, finished with 733 goals in 744 competitive games.

    What does it matter? Those of us who saw Eusebio at his best, and particularly those fortunate enough to have known him and listened to him defend the sport's integrity and its meaning to him, see more to him than statistics or honours.

    Suffice it to say that Eusebio destroyed the nonsense that Africans could not harness individual flair for the good of the team.

    By the way, don't judge him by today's monetary values either. He had no regrets, often insisting that he had the best of times.

    "The generation I played with was the best, ever," he would tell journalists. "I wouldn't change it for money. Football today is just commercial. The players are good, but the football of my time was better."

    He talked of the old heavy leather ball in the muddied days of yesteryear - and of players like Pele or Garrincha from Brazil, of George Best and Cruyff making it obey their touch.

    He talked, without jealousy, of a time before adidas or Nike paid fortunes for footwear contracts. Before the agents, the mercenaries and the celebrity bonanza, and the ability of television companies to determine the time or the day of a big game.

    When it was suggested to Eusebio that his time had its drawbacks, that he wouldn't be walking on such wounded knees with the modern medicine now available to players, he understood.

    Old players, like ageing actors or simply our fathers, think they had the best of times.